CHENGGUAN, China — The sign above the entry to the Water Cube bathhouse lit up at night with blue ocean waves, palm trees and red characters advertising spring waters. It was one of the last things the girls saw before their lives changed forever.
Lured to the club, the high school students were forced either to strip naked or to have sex — accounts vary — and their naked bodies were photographed. The pictures allegedly constituted a threat: Bring your classmates to the Water Cube, or your nude image will be passed around the streets of Chengguan.
As the string of victims grew, teenagers reportedly were pressed into prostitution. By the time authorities put a stop to it last year, as many as 50 to 60 students may have been snared in the trap, according to accusations published last month in a story by Legal Daily, a publication overseen by China's Ministry of Justice.
Past the terrible details set at a drab spa on the edge of an industrial park in central China, the incident raised troubling questions in the minds of residents: Did government officials and their associates provide protection to the Water Cube? Were they among the customers who paid cash to rape local girls?
The Legal Daily carried allegations of some 10 instances of unnamed officials and well-known citizens in Chengguan having sex with young prostitutes at the Water Cube in the spring of 2010. The club, named for the Olympic aquatics center in Beijing, is one intersection away from a police station.
Hard feelings over local mandarins and their corrupt dealings are commonplace in China. But the fact that suspicions extend to something as grotesque as schoolgirl prostitution is the sort of development that causes concern in the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party.
It's far from obvious, though, how the central leadership will manage such tensions amid complaints of privilege and cash trumping the law.
"People here are angry about the behavior of these government officials and they want a thorough investigation," said one Chengguan businessman, a 46-year-old surnamed Zhang. Like almost all residents interviewed for this story, Zhang asked that his full name not be printed for fear of reprisal.
After three decades of unbridled economic growth in China, with little accountability or transparency, the rulers of some corners of the nation are widely considered to be closer to princes than comrades. While public outrage over small-town or big-city potentates almost never extends to the Communist Party at large or to widespread calls for political upheaval, in the towns and villages themselves the mixture of frustration and fear can be unsettling.
To keep the behavior of wayward officials from denting its legitimacy, the Communist Party announces investigations of bureaucrats with a precision common to authoritarian regimes.
The state Xinhua news wire said earlier this month that prosecutors launched 31,616 abuse of power cases from January to November that involved 43,265 suspects. Of that number, 2,475 were government officials at the county level or above.
In Chengguan, authorities are said to have delayed investigating the Water Cube until provincial leaders, alarmed by public discontent and online postings, demanded action. Even after a series of court verdicts, many in this township of about 67,000 people felt certain that officials of higher stripe had escaped punishment.
"A lot of people have used their 'big money' to buy their freedom in this case," said Yuan, a 30-year-old primary school teacher in Chengguan, who agreed to be interviewed but only if away from public view.
"People are very angry that you need connections here to avoid prosecution, but no one dares to speak up," Yuan said, sitting in a small sport utility vehicle pulled to the side of the road.
Because of the opaque nature of the court system, politics and almost everything between in Chinese officialdom, it wasn't possible to determine whether the girls fell prey to a group of adolescent bullies — underage suspects reportedly were among those arrested — a criminal gang or those aligned with officials.
The last two are not mutually exclusive, said a businessman surnamed Wang.
"The government is a family that includes these sorts of people," Wang said, standing in front of his home in a relatively upscale quarter of Chengguan. "There's nothing we can do about it given the fact that the government turns a blind eye to these dark things."
Five low-level security and government functionaries stood convicted this year for not properly attending to inspection duties related to the club. The sentences — ranging from six months to two years — were suspended, according to Legal Daily, allowing the defendants to go free under probation.
One man publicly identified as an owner of the Water Cube, Jiang Junwei, was sentenced Tuesday to seven years in prison for sheltering prostitution and, in one instance, arranging sexual services for friends, according to his attorney.
The lawyer, Xu Zhongqiu, told McClatchy that Jiang had held a 20.4 percent stake in the club and transferred it to another person in January 2010. In a series of email exchanges, Xu wouldn't describe the backgrounds of the other owners. He declined to meet in person at his office in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou, about 40 miles from Chengguan.
Xu said the number of girls referenced by Legal Daily, 50 to 60, didn't match what was given in court.
How many, then?
"Because it concerns personal privacy, it's not convenient to disclose details," Xu said.
A police spokesman in the county that supervises Chengguan told Chinese journalists in June 2010 that the 50 to 60 figure, which originally appeared in online posts, was exaggerated. He added that only six victims had stepped forward.
Asked who arranged the brutalization of the schoolgirls, whatever their number, Xu replied, "It's too early to discuss who was responsible for the organization of the prostitution."
In Jiang's home village, which sits near the Water Cube, a couple of women who were getting out of a nice Buick sedan said that everyone knew his story. Jiang had risen from working in the construction trade to buying real estate, they said. Plus, his older brother is the head of the village.
"When he opened this business and as he was trying to build guanxi" — connections — "he probably got into something that was bigger than he could handle," said one of them, a 30-year-old surnamed Liu who's a former neighbor of Jiang's.
Two weeks of attempts to reach local officials for comment by phone, fax and email were unsuccessful. At the offices of the Weishi County government, which oversees Chengguan, a series of people denied receiving written interview requests. Others said that those who'd previously acknowledged getting the requests didn't exist.
During a final conversation, a man who wouldn't give his name said of the Water Cube, "This happened a long time ago," and hung up the phone.
In Kaifeng, a larger city to the north where Jiang was tried, those who answered the phone in the court's main office said they had no fax machines. One woman gave a phone number, for whom she wouldn't say, and suggested that the reporter call it. That line rang and rang each time, with no answer.
Back in Chengguan, a 30-year-old clothing shop manager surnamed Chen explained the difficulty of the subject.
"People here try not to talk about it much, probably because news about it was suppressed locally," she said, wearing a brown coat and fluffy pink scarf. "Or maybe it's because a lot of officials were involved."
An 18-year-old woman who was idly looking over a rack of jackets stopped to point beyond the storefront window. "A lot of the girls were from that school across the street," said the woman, surnamed Hao.
She gave a small shudder and said, "I used to go to that school ... the boss at that club is a bad man."
No one in town would say which families have been affected. Even the hint that a girl was ensnared at the club, they said, could ruin her reputation for life.
At the southern outskirts of town, the hotel and bathing club complex formerly known as the Water Cube is open for business. The facade has been adjusted to drop the old title.
The manager recently on duty, a 24-year-old in a black tracksuit, denied that rooms were still being rented by the hour. A sign at the front desk indicated otherwise.
The man, who gave only his last name of Wang, told a McClatchy journalist that the company had acquired new leadership after the scandal. But it wasn't possible to say exactly who those people are, Wang said.
"I don't try to find out who owns it now," he said. "My only concern is that they pay my salary."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more international news visit McClatchy's World page.